Inouye’s inheritance

This election cycle offers voters a choice between a return to old guard Democratic party dominance or a further diversification of Hawaiʻi's political scene.

Jon Osorio

The Honolulu newspaper seemed almost to scream the headline “Ige Surges Ahead of Abercrombie,” and followed that up the next morning with two front-page stories on very tight Democratic primary races for the U.S. Senate and Congress. It is the gubernatorial race that seems surprising, as the past three Hawaiʻi governors Lingle, Cayetano and Waiheʻe all had relatively easy primaries for reelection, with only token opposition.

We have to go back to the Burns and Ariyoshi years, back before term limits were established by the 1978 constitution, to find sitting governors facing serious challenges by extremely popular candidates: Tom Gill in 1970; Frank Fasi in 1978, and Jean King in 1982.  Tom Gill came very close to unseating Burns, but in general incumbents won without much drama, usually by more than 10 percentage points. The challengers provided important ideological reminders to the Party that it had an obligation to house liberal and progressive ideals, but the electoral outcomes were routine.

There was a also remarkable consistency to the national races. Hiram Fong would hold a seat until he voluntarily relinquished it in 1976. Other than that sole Republican, the Senators were Matsunaga and Inouye, and then Akaka and Inouye, until retirement or death opened the door for new contenders. The U.S. House delegation was also relatively stable with incumbents who were rarely defeated (ironically Abercromble was one of them), and who—like Heftel, the Republican Saiki, and Case (and lately Abercrombie)—seemed to leave office only in order to seek a senate seat or the governor’s mansion.

Indeed, the congress seemed to be seen as a transitional office into the heady realms of the senate or the governorship or down into political oblivion. Burns, Fong, Matsungaga, Inouye, and finally Abercrombie all made the transition upward. The rest: Heftel, Saiki, Hannemann, and Case made the leap and fell short. Patsy Mink also sought the senate in 1976, losing to Matsunaga. But she was one of the few to make a comeback and was reelected to the House in 1990 where she served until her death.

What is instructive about all of this is the extent to which this political order coincides with the long career of the late Senator Inouye. While he was alive there was certainly a sense that one deferred to the political stability he provided, and that bad things tended to happen to Democrats who sought to make their own decisions about their political careers. Cec Heftel, who was not challenging an incumbent in 1982 was, nevertheless, challenging the Lt. Governor, John Waiheʻe, who was the more-or-less anointed successor to George Ariyoshi. Heftel was not just defeated by Waiheʻe but claimed to have been the victim of a vicious political smear campaign and never ran for public office again.

More recently, Congressman Ed Case’s decision to challenge Senator Akaka in the 2006 Democratic primary became a struggle between the old guard Democrats and the independents in Hawaiʻi. Even with Republican votes in the primary, Case was beaten by more than 10 percentage points, and he seemed to suffer politically even after this election for having offended Senator Inouye. What seemed to be his most egregious sin was that he ran against the incumbent Democrat whose votes nearly always coincided with Senator Inouye’s.

This is not to insist that Inouye himself had a direct hand in the defeat of rebellious Democrats. But it is interesting that up until Case’s announcement, there was a discipline within the Democratic party that kept the important races relatively drama-free on election night, and it’s likely that this discipline was a carefully managed amity between unions, the party, and the Japanese Americans who really do vote in primaries and general elections. It is quite apparent that Senator Inouye had a commanding influence in the party and among the voters, and that his long-term strategy was to maintain that political order, forged back in the early years of statehood, for as long as possible.

As for the Democratic mavericks who challenged that nicely managed stability, their political careers generally ended, at least within the party. Both progressive and highly admired leaders Tom Gill and Jean King never won another election after challenging incumbent Democratic governors, although Gill would try it more than once. Only Frank Fasi survived politically—and only by changing parties, even making up his own.

All of this may seem quite obvious to local political observers, but another side to this history has large implications for this and future elections in Hawaiʻi. What we may be seeing in this election is not the destruction of the Inouye political order but the question of who inherits it. The Japanese no longer have the same political majority they once enjoyed, but they do turn out and they do vote Democrat. And while it’s mostly the public sector unions now that have large memberships, they continue for the most part to support Democratic candidates who have the support of the party faithful. The coalition that Jack Burn and Jack Hall built in the 1950s is still the key to elections in Hawaiʻi.

So what is wrong this year? What’s wrong is Abercrombie. As a congressman from 1990 to 2010 he was effective without attracting a great deal of attention. He seemed content to portray himself as part of the federal delegation team that was clearly led by Inouye. But his approach since becoming governor has been to trumpet his independence and his impatience with his supporters who disagree with his priorities. With one famous utterance “I am not your pal” he made sure that his supporters were not to think for a moment that they could influence him. In short, he has threatened that stability, that quiet consensus that has all but strangled the Republicans in Hawaiʻi for more than half a century. He intentionally attracted political opposition, believing perhaps that this was the ultimate liberal persona—to be outspoken and fiery, to be honest and real and visible to the voting public, to make sure that he leaves his mark on the political scene. He has. But perhaps at the expense of his reelection.

Of course Abercrombie is not Inouye, and that is certainly not a rap against him. But politicians like Inouye, Ariyoshi, Waiheʻe and Matsunaga work differently with the public. Remember Ariyoshi’s campaign slogan, “Quiet but effective?” It was their preference to work behind the scenes with labor leaders and the business community that drove progressive Democrats like Gill and Jean King to take the incumbents on, and challenge the Party to follow through on its liberal foundations. They paid for their convictions with their political lives. That lesson has stuck for Democrats for sixteen years.  Lingle may have shuffled the political deck, but it is clear that the Democrats would prefer to return to elections that lack high drama and produce predictable victories by incumbents

So when Abercrombie purportedly defied the Senator’s dying request to appoint Colleen Hanabusa to fill out the remainder of his term, he most certainly was not trying to dismiss or anger Inouye’s still potent following. He was trying to assume leadership over it. Appointing Hanabusa would only guarantee her ascendance into that key role, a Japanese Democrat with the party’s support and a direct line to the unions. Abercrombie did not want merely to be governor. He wanted to reshape the party in his image.

So he appointed a good, credible, and progressive Democrat, Brian Schatz, and hoped that his own reelection and the election of Schatz would provide the foundation for a new party leadership. He gave notice that he had the will and the political intelligence to succeed Inouye. And for awhile, he appeared to have done exactly that. It must have seemed too good to be true when Hanabusa left her safe reelection to run against Schatz. Now, it is almost as if Inouye haunts him from his grave, as Hanabusa maintains a slim lead over Schatz and Abercrombie himself appears to be losing big to another Japanese Democrat.

What happens next is the very interesting question: will Hawaiʻi continue into a largely unpredictable future, with the emergence perhaps of a stronger Republican and Independent presence in the face of a fractured Democratic order? Or are we seeing the old Inouye regime given new life with new but still reminiscent names—Hanabusa, Takai and Ige?